Thursday, August 26, 2010

Excise The Textbook

There are some old things that we need to preserve and cherish. Last night on the TCM channel they were showing To Have and Have Not. The movie is probably best remembered as Lauren Bacall's debut - "You know how to whistle." Hers is a total presence in this film, quick on the uptake, poise beyond her years, a pro as a hustler yet still a kid. The movie, however, is not just Lauren Bacall. There are other characters in the background who do wonderful things, notably Hoagy Carmichael as the piano player, Cricket. You get from him a sense of how his songs were composed and how his need as a songwriter is driven by capturing the imagination of the audience. And Walter Brennan is excellent too, the lush who is a flake but also a person of substance. Of course there's Bogie, the antihero par excellence, out for himself while serving the cause of Free France. The movie was made during World War II. It seems a blend of film noir and patriotic themes. There are definitely good guys and bad guys. But the message holds up because the characters have been around the block and are believable. It's a film I can enjoy viewing periodically for the rest of my life.

There are other old things that need to be ditched. They embrace practices that no longer fit. They block newer ideas that need to emerge. This piece is about one of those things - the textbook. At the college level, we should be getting rid of it. I'll explain why.

The best of textbooks provide "end point thinking" and that is what these books present to the students. End point thinking is the received wisdom of experts in the discipline, suitably translated for the novice mind. Students are somehow expected to "suck in" the end point thinking and internalize it. Through that process they will come to know the subject matter. However, the process of going from ignorance of the subject to mastery of the end point remains totally opaque. My surmisal of the actual situation is that in many cases the process doesn't lead to fruition. Ignorance or prior held view is retained, even for many students who do well on the tests in the course.

In the last five to seven years, clickers (automatic response units for polling students in the live classroom) have become popular. Their benefit is that they can readily show dissonance among the students to queries the instructor poses. Having demonstrated such dissonance, there is a need to resolve it. One good path to resolution is that a student and her neighbor(s) discuss their views of the situation and then argue their way to to a common understanding, after which another iteration with the clickers can show if the class now seems to better see the right way to think about the problem. The dissonance serves as a motivation for the discussions among the students. In the main, however, the content of these discussions does not find its way to a more broad airing.

An alternative is to have the students do a "preflight quiz" online in advance of the class session. In addition to answering the the closed ended quiz question, the student is asked to provide her reasoning and justification for the answer they selected. The instructor can cull through these responses and select representatives or particularly interesting comments. Part of the live class session then becomes a response to those or the session launches in an entirely new direction triggered by those responses. This is the essence of Just In Time Teaching. It conveys the idea that student formative thinking should have influence on what goes on in the classroom.

However, the situation thus described pertains to only to a highly insular world where the subject matter is for the most part pre-determined. Perhaps that makes sense in introductory Physics. I'm not sure about that. It certainly doesn't make sense in undergraduate microeconomics, courses I teach. A significant chunk of such courses should be taken up with how the subject matter relates to what is going on in the "real world," say as depicted by pieces in NPR, articles in the New York Times, or elsewhere in the popular media.

Textbooks are not helpful in either of these dimensions. By emphasizing the end point thinking these books mask the student formative thinking. By offering a complete program to the instructor, they seem to provide the option to exclude real world current events as legitimate objects of study in the class. Such exclusion means the students never learn how to translate what they are being taught to apply to issues that should be of interest and concern. The courses will seem irrelevant in this case.

There is the further issue of the changing demographics in General Education instruction. When I started teaching, 30 years ago, almost all large introductory classes at Illinois were taught by regular faculty, mainly tenured professors who had a flair for the subject and for presenting to a large audience. Nowadays, many if not most of the instructors are non-tenure track. These instructors are more risk-averse in their approach and thus more inclined to offer a cookbook view of the subject matter, especially if that "satisfies" the students, as measured by the course evaluations and any other assessment instrument that might be introduced to measure effectiveness of instruction. By overt indicators, things may appear to be going swimmingly. But deep learning is unlikely to happen in this setting.

There is a need to introduce ongoing experimentation in the approach to teaching and learning in these classes and to expect instructors who do this to themselves learn about how to effectively teach the subject in a way that has a chance to open the students' eyes and change their world view. Surely this will imply a greater focus on student intrinsic motivation, about exposing student formative thinking, and a push to tie the subject matter to the real world. The textbook is a force for the old way of instruction. There needs to be a counter force for the new.

If such a counter force were present and viable, would the textbook have to be eliminated entirely or might it be retained as one piece of the instructional materials for the course? I don't know the answer to that question. There are too many other unknowns that would help determine the answer. What will replace the textbook? My hope is that it would be the creations of the students themselves. What students create in one offering of the course could be repurposed in future offerings of the class and utilized by other students. Idealistic as I am about that prospect, there is another side of me that is a realist. We're not ready to flick that switch and make the change. Other intermediate steps need to happen first.

What I'd like to see is a rather massive undertaking of having students produce multimedia content in doing their outside of the classroom work. What I have in mind is an online version of show and tell, a pedagogy that was prominent when I was in grade school. Show and tell is a pedagogy that should be preserved. Students can do show and tell via screencasts or analogous modes of online presentation. I made an argument for doing this a couple of years ago, when there was still a fair amount of production value needed to produce something decent. Nowadays, a student can use the free version of Jing and post the resulting movie in swf format as an email attachment to Posterous, where it appears embedded in a blog post. Or they can use the Pro version of Jing ($15/year) and upload to YouTube. So far I've not seen others using screencasts in this way for regular homework. If this were to happen and the student body as a whole developed the relevant sort of experience for making these, it could serve as the basis for the type of change I'm talking about.

An alternative is to use the screencasts for online presentations that are course projects and may be done in lieu of having the students make in class presentations. Because the projects are larger than a simple homework assignment, students might get more into the multimedia production. Here are some ideas on making such projects, aimed at students learning a different sort of communication style concomitant to learning the subject matter. I embraced the approach in the seminar class I taught in fall 2009 and the students who made these did some interesting work.

The profession doesn't seem to have taken up this idea of student multimedia presentation as the path to the future. Instead, there has been a recent very heavy focus on eTexts. I'm seeing it on the listservs I participate in. I'm having discussions about it with friends and colleagues, mostly because textbook pricing is a prominent issue. And the popular press has embraced the story, for example, see this online debate at the New York Times Web site. I believe that because of budget problems in most of Higher Ed, the cost issues are getting the attention and causing the profession to lose track of the learning issues, which undoubtedly are larger and more important long term. And on the learning issues, courses that are entirely steeped in the textbook are taking a 19th century teaching approach and not well instructing the students on the learning to learn skills that should be the essence of a well prepared 21st century mind.

If the students were learning deeply, the cost of readings issue would fade into the background. Absent any deep learning, the entire education becomes expensive indeed and the cost of materials appears to be rubbing salt into the wound. We may very well be in crisis now. The solution, however, doesn't lie in electronic versions of the traditional approach. It requires a different approach entirely.

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